Long-time readers of the site will know by heart Dave's Maxim for Telling How Good a Team Is:
The best teams have the fewest questions to answer. Success in the NBA isn't about being brilliant on certain nights, but being good-to-great on more nights than your opponents.
With that in mind, here are 5 questions facing the Portland Trail Blazers as they embark into the 2014-15 season.
How Does the Team Deal with Success?
If you've ever learned on the job--or trained new hires--you know that the opening days of employment aren't the most dangerous even though the new employee knows almost nothing about the job during that time. When you're brand new you tend to walk carefully, observe, ask questions. You'll make mistakes but they'll be basic, easily correctable.
The most dangerous part of the growth curve comes just after you've learned the ropes and you think you understand the tasks at hand now. You forget to ask questions. You don't observe quite as carefully. You start skipping steps, assuming you know where you're going instead of double-checking details. With speed and confidence high, the mistakes you make at this stage feel like running into a brick wall. Instead of babying the crane to pick up the cargo, you end up smashing it into the side of the ship.
The Blazers tasted success for the first time in more than a decade last season. They won a playoff series. They're regarded as a hot, young team with hot, young commodities. Everything is swinging their way.
The Blazers ascended to that semi-lofty perch through precise, team-oriented play. They fused a special chemistry with consistent work ethic and shocked the world as a result.
With success a fresh memory, where are their heads now? Will they come into this season just as focused, just as dedicated to detail and consistency? Or are they like our not-quite-new worker, depending on their new-found sense of confidence to carry them through?
If it's the former, this team could be scary. We've seen what commitment to excellence has done for the San Antonio Spurs. (Not that the two franchises should be mentioned in the same breath, but more than one observer has termed Portland's approach as "Spurs-like".) If it's the latter, the Blazers could be in for rough patches and soul-searching. They're no longer the team with something to prove...at least not in as pure a form as they experienced last year. Now they're the team expected to do well, the team that opponents want to prove themselves against. That's a different ballgame.
We should know pretty quickly which way the wind is blowing. Crisp sets, constant motion, unselfish play, and victories are great heralds. Inexplicable defeats, crumbling plays, tough luck, and staring at each other in frustration would be ominous signs.
How's That Defense Coming?
As Blazer's Edge luminary Willy Raedy has chronicled here and here and...here, defense provides the single greatest growth opportunity for the Blazers this year. That may be another way to say, "The sky's the limit!" It also may be a polite way of saying, "They're not that good."
Contrary to popular belief, it's perfectly possible to score your way to success in the NBA...at least during the regular season. That plan falls apart in the playoffs when opponents can target you for 7 straight games, thinking about nothing except for breaking down your inadequate defensive execution.
Last year the Blazers would have settled for that...did settle for it in some ways. Getting to the second round was worthy of celebration even if success there eluded them. That won't wash this year. Hiding flaws beneath a veneer of offense and charisma doesn't work when the spotlight gets brighter.
In a way this links to the first question. When attention to detail slips defense is the first thing to go. You can get away with 1-2 guys playing well on offense while the rest of the team watches. A single man not defending will ruin the set for the entire team.
Will we see the Blazers commit to, and take pride in, stopping opponents as much as they enjoy scoring over them? Will the Blazers get back in transition, work around screens, secure rebounds? They're capable but they'll need effort to pull it off.
The Blazers also have systemic issues. How do they help Robin Lopez against mobile centers or disguise him against centers with shooting range? How do they manufacture more turnovers, preventing the opponent from getting up shots in the first place? Can they watch the lane and the arc at the same time?
The Blazers don't need to address every one of these issues to succeed, but they can't afford to gloss over them either.
How About the Young Guns?
CJ McCollum, Will Barton, Meyers Leonard, Thomas Robinson. If you'd never seen the Blazers and you picked up all your information about them from summer reading alone, you'd assume that these 4 players and Damian Lillard were the stars of the team. More ink and worry have been devoted to this quartet than the entire rest of the roster combined outside of Lillard.
Why? Because everyone knows these are the moving parts, the best chances for the Blazers to improve from within. If growth is to come the easy way, these 4 have to provide it.
Each of these young players has strengths. McCollum and Barton can score...CJ sagely, Will with stunning abandon. At times they've shown deft passing instincts as well. Leonard blossoms when he can move and fire jumpers. Robinson transforms into the Incredible Hulk upon occasion, owning every rebound and blocking shots with authority. But none, so far, have been able to find the court when trust is required. Part of that is Portland's iron-clad starting lineup. But they're also young, variable, less coin flip than crap-shoot. If so inclined, you could fashion an anti-highlight reel to stand alongside their impressive dunks and dishes.
And yet here they are. The starters can't play all 48 minutes. Steve Blake and Chris Kaman will hold serve but they're the bar over which aspirants must jump on the way to playing time, not the ultimate solution. We're going to see what the young Blazers are made of this year. It'll be disappointing if we're still asking the same questions on the other end of 82 games.
How Good Did Everyone Else Get?
The Blazers finished tied for 4th in the Western Conference last year and became one of the Top 4 teams in the conference playoff bracket. Having fully acknowledged that accomplishment, the difference between 4th and 9th in the conference was slim enough to fall within the margin of error for your average poll.
As Ryan A Chase chronicled earlier, teams like Golden State and Memphis have the desire and firepower to supplant the Blazers in the standings. You still have the Rockets hanging around. Then there's Phoenix, Dallas...the distance between the Blazers and the teams behind them is still smaller than the distance between the Blazers and the teams acknowledged to be ahead.
Portland isn't just going to have to maintain pace this year. They'll need to put on a burst of speed to separate themselves from the trail pack and get up with the leaders. Whether they have that extra gear (and the endurance/depth to make it count) remain open questions.
LaMarcus Aldridge left no questions unanswered on the court last year. He treated the NBA as his personal playground, showing the world why he's the best all-around power forward in the league. There's no reason to think he'll stop or falter now. He should give the Blazers another great season.
But like it or not, Aldridge is still unsigned. The scales tip towards him re-signing with Portland far more than they did at this time last year. The vibe when talking to local media scans, "Of course he's going to re-sign!"
Then national folks interview him and the "if" is back.
Truth is, "if" will remain "if" until that deal is inked. The new NBA television deal may allow Team Aldridge and the Blazers to find common ground: a huge contract with a short opt-out, allowing Aldridge security along with the chance to maximize money. But plenty of other teams will be courting Portland's 6'11" forward as well. As long as the Blazers keep winning the topic will stay muted. If they stall or slide, this question will start resonating.
The good news: These questions are less serious, less substantial, than questions plaguing the Blazers in the past. There's no "Can Greg Oden stay healthy?" or "How do you fill the gap at point guard?" here. The closest such issue is the bench. Kaman and Blake should ease the strain enough to make it non-critical. The Blazers have every chance to equal the mark they set last year, if not in actual record at least in impact.
The bad news: The Blazers aren't looking to equal last season's mark, but to exceed it. Assuming reasonable health, the safety net is established beneath this franchise. Can they actually mount the trapeze and fly?
The Blazers will resolve this the burning question over the next 82 games....not how bad they might be but how good they can be. It's a far better question to ask than they've dared to ask before, but it remains a question nonetheless.